Quotes for entrepreneurs: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.” How to manage fear, doubt, greed, and success.
Quotes for Entrepreneurs Curated in December 2022
I curate these quotes for entrepreneurs from a variety of sources and tweet them on @skmurphy about once a day where you can get them hot off the mojo wire. At the end of each month I curate them in a blog post that adds commentary and may contain a longer passage from the same source for context. Please enter your E-mail address if you would like to have new blog posts sent to you.
Theme for this month: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.” How to manage fear, doubt, greed, and success.
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting.”
Three verses from “If—” by Rudyard Kipling
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“I have two religions, customer satisfaction and operating income. Everything else is a tactic.”
Reed Hastings in an interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin at DealBook 2022
Under pressure it’s natural to narrow your focus, Hastings offers a good perspective on what to keep an eye on. I like this 1993 quote by Jack Welch–I am not much of a fan of Welch in general but this is insightful–that suggests three fundamental drivers for success:
“Too often we measure everything and understand nothing. The three most important things you need to measure in a business are customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and cash flow. If you’re growing customer satisfaction, your global market share is sure to grow, too. Employee satisfaction gets you productivity, quality, pride, and creativity. And cash flow is the pulse—the key vital sign of a company.”
Jack Welch in Control Your Destiny Or Someone Else Will by Noel Tichy (1993)
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“When you wake up and look at your phone and the headlines at least make sense, however bad the news may be—that is when you know you are inside an authentically Jewish conversation. To see the cracks in the building before it collapses—that is a Jewish experience. To argue about whether the building can be saved or has to be evacuated—that is a Jewish debate. To find a way to somehow invent an entirely new kind of building—that is a Jewish act. To dismiss the cracks as unimportant and suppress questions, so that the next day’s news shocks you all over again–I wish you luck in your efforts, but don’t confuse your approach with the values of Jewish engagement.
Once you stop spending your time being outraged, you’ll realize how much energy you have for whatever work you want to do. Leave. Stay. Build something new; invest in current institutions to see if they can be made better. Think bravely and creatively about what America needs for a stable and rich future. Be deliberate about what you’re doing, and try to understand those who do and see things differently. What you encounter might seem or actually be misguided or outright wrong, foreign, scary—even dangerous. Engage anyway.”
Alana Newhouse in “Brokenism” (Tablet Magazine)
Seeing things as they are and engaging to improve them is not just a Jewish ideal. Refusing to see things as they are is a variation on “losing your head.” Especially if you want to improve things you need to start with things as they are–just don’t view them as fixed. Of course the other caveat for those of us who want to midwife improvements to groups, organizations, cultures, or societies is to remember Immanuel Kant’s observation about the limitations of human systems:
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”
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“Humans are, at a very deep and basic level, gift-exchange animals. We create and reinforce our social bonds by establishing patterns of “owing” other people and by “being owed”. We want to enter into reciprocal gift-exchange relationships.
We create and reinforce social bonds by giving each other presents. We like to give. We like to receive. We like neither to feel like cheaters nor to feel cheated.
We like, instead, to feel embedded in networks of mutual reciprocal obligation. We don’t like being too much on the downside of the gift exchange: to have received much more than we have given in return makes us feel very small. We don’t like being too much on the upside of the gift exchange either: to give and give and give and never receive makes us feel like suckers. We want to be neither cheaters nor saps.”
Bradford DeLong in Regional Policy and Distributional Policy
I used this quote as a point of departure for “Reciprocal Gift-Exchange and Charity Knit Networks into Communities.” DeLong’s thesis (also explored in “David Graeber is Back“) is that humans have evolved to rely on reciprocal gift-exchange to maintain the communities they are members of. We trade goods, services, respect/status, and information with kin, close friends, and immediate neighbors for two big reasons:
- To keep us all pulling roughly in the same direction.
- To take advantage of the division of labor.
There are powerful psychological and societal mechanisms and incentives that urge us to engage in such gift-exchange relationships and to keep such gift-exchange relationships reciprocal–in rough balance.
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“The United States has different levels of authority: local, state, national, legislative, judicial, executive, business, academic, and so on. All were independently garnered, constitutionally garnered, or community-created. Overlapping, sometimes clashing, often messy. But associations generate power, generate authority, and generate durability.”
This reminded me of a passage from De Tocqueville:
“Americans of all ages, of all conditions, of all minds, constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which they all take part, but also they have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, [intellectual,] serious ones, useless ones, very general and very particular ones, immense and very small ones;d Americans associate to celebrate holidays, establish seminaries, build inns, erect churches, distribute books, send missionaries to the Antipodes; in this way they create hospitals, prisons, schools. If, finally, it is a matter of bringing a truth to light or of developing a sentiment with the support of a good example, they associate.”
Alexis De Tocqueville “Democracy in America” Book 2, Section 2 Chapter 5: Of the Use That Americans Make of Association in Civil Life
translated by James T. Schleife
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“The effect of keeping interest rates artificially low creates economic distortions. It encourages increased borrowing and tends, in fact, to encourage highly speculative ventures that cannot continue except under the artificial conditions that gave them birth. On the supply side, the artificial reduction of interest rates discourages normal thrift and saving. It brings about a comparative shortage of real capital.”
Henry Hazlitt “economics in one lesson‘ (1946)
This was condensed from a longer passage:
The effect of keeping interest rates artificially low, in fact, is eventually the same as that of keeping any other price below the natural market. It increases demand and reduces supply. It increases the demand for capital and reduces the supply of real capital. It brings about a scarcity. It creates economic distortions. It is true, no doubt, that an artificial reduction in the interest rate encourages increased borrowing. It tends, in fact, to encourage highly speculative ventures that cannot continue except under the artificial conditions that gave them birth. On the supply side, the artificial reduction of interest rates discourages normal thrift and saving. It brings about a comparative shortage of real capital.
The money rate can, indeed, be kept artificially low only by continuous new injections of currency or bank credit in place of real savings. This can create the illusion of more capital just as the addition of water can create the illusion of more milk. But it is a policy of continuous inflation. It is obviously a process involving cumulative danger. The money rate will rise and a crisis will develop if the inflation is reversed, or merely brought to a halt, or even continued at a diminished rate. Cheap money policies, in short, eventually bring about far more violent oscillations in business than those they are designed to remedy or prevent.
Henry Hazlitt “economics in one lesson‘ (1946) In section 3 of the chapter “The assault on savings.
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A pair of quotes on ChatGPT
ChatGPT is an AI that has mastered a unique human skill, bullshitting. It knows what the shape of a good answer looks like but often not the details. But we’re now learning that even technical people are happy with an answer that looks right instead of is right.”
Dare Obasanjo (@Carnage4Life)
“ChatGPT is a cute parlor trick. Yeah, the statistical model has been massaged in a way that makes it create kinda sorta plausible looking texts. It’s an iteration on the statistical models we saw before. It’s just as problematic as the other text generators. De-hype yourself for once in your life.
Jürgen Geuter (@tante)
There must be a deep longing for artificial intelligence that exceeds human intelligence in certain subcultures / communities. My goal is to help develop tools and decision aids that augment and extend human expertise, not supplant it. The better assistants will not only offer explanations for their conclusions and suggestions but analyze your current performance to coach you to improve. One example that surprised me was how well Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing was able to analyze my typing, identify particular recurring errors, and suggest exercises to target improvements. My daughter had purchased when she was in her teens and I had been typing for more than three decades, normally typing about 65 WPM–but my use case was not transcribing or retyping but “composing at the keyboard.” It was still enlightening to see Mavis diagnose certain errors I could improve.
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“In a chess tournament, all the players know the same rules and have access to the same chess books and records of past games by world champions, yet only a small minority excel.”
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Dept of Things Only Clear in Hindsight: April 2022 was the end of a Minsky boom for startups
Sean Murphy: In a Minsky Boom, as capital flows into a market, and we’re seeing enormous capital flows coming in, then you see in the near term kind of higher returns, the perception of lower volatility and what looks like better risk adjusted performance because as money comes in, there’s more investments. If you make a seed round, there’s somebody to do the A, there’s somebody to do the B. But at some point, the merry go round starts to run the other way, and you get something like 2001 where there’s many fewer exits, the market appears unattractive and there’s down-rounds or kind of involuntary exits of different sorts. So the question is, if and when that comes, given the amount of money flowing in the venture.
Video is from February 2022. The answer was that the boom ended two months later at the end of April 2022 when Angels and VC’s started to extol the virtues of bootstrapping. Full video, slides, and transcript are available at “Startups: What’s Hot, What’s Not Feb-22-2022.“
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2. Balance quick tactical wins with a long-term vision: Identify quick wins with the highest potential. But have a long-term vision for comprehensive transformation. An example is to initially automate a portion of an assembly or test process instead of the whole solution. This approach will improve your process and allow you to make money while developing the entire solution.
3. Look end-to-end and redefine processes. Consider the previous process and the post-processes to ensure connectivity and create a smooth flow. An example is creating common carrying fixturing for partial assemblies between each process.
Mark Brinkerhoff in “Automation Friendly Design“
There is a lot of wisdom in this list. I singled out these two items for their broader applicability. There is an art to balancing “good enough” with “perfect” and planning for smaller wins with faster payoff that are on the way to larger wins. The art of bootstrapping. “Look end-to-end” is always good checklist item for “Be careful not to get trapped in too narrow a view of the problem.” Software entrepreneurs can substitute “common data exchange format” or “standardized API” for “common carrying fixturing” to make the advice more directly applicable to evolution of their software architecture.
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We rely on journalists for sensemaking. If the press does not offer accurate reporting and analysis, it allows a group to blindside the status quo. I follow Zaid Jilani–even though I have very little overlap with his politics–because his reports and insights reduce surprise. He is committed to the truth before advancing an argument
I have a diverse set of readers who will point out flaws in stuff I write and I’m better for it. Although I make mistakes like anyone else I can also get the feedback necessary to not call say an entirely true story fake and demand it be censored.
Zaid Jilani in a Dec-3-2020 tweet
If you want to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs you have to be very careful not to get trapped in echo chambers. Otherwise the end of an illusion becomes a crisis. I admire Jiliani because he has a point of view and a clear frame of reference but he wants the facts and he acknowledges them. It’s become a rare mindset and I value his reporting and writing all the more for it.
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“Optimism Versus Pessimism
It was optimism that originated the steam boiler. It blew up. Then pessimism came along and added the safety valve.
Optimism built the steam engine, and it ran away until pessimism invented the governor.
Optimism laid down the railroad, but pessimism made it practicable with the air brake and block-signal system.
Optimism design a ship to sail daringly into the skies–and fall perhaps at times. So pessimism designed the parachute.”
W. H. H. MacKellar, Honorary Rotarian
Peekskill, New York
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“Your habits create your mood, and your mood is a filter through which you experience your life.”
Brianna Wiest in “The Psychology Of Daily Routine“
This reminds me of a quote often attributed to Anais Nin:
“We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani
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“Unpopular but true–that time you’re spending fundraising would be better spent selling.”
Bryce Roberts (@bryce)
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Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death comes soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.”
Thomas Babington Macaulay in “Lays of Ancient Rome“
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“When a nation goes down, or a society perishes, one condition may always be found; they forgot where they came from. They lost sight of what had brought them along.”
h/t Tim Urban (@waitbutwhy)
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As a society, we sacrificed the well-being of children for the comfort and ego gratification of adults. The very least we can do now is stop making excuses and be honest about it.
I added a longer excerpt from this article to my “Practical Advice on Managing Challenges from the COVID-19 Coronavirus” (started in 2020)
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“You think that maybe it’s over
Only if you want it to be
Are you gonna wait for a sign, your miracle?
Stand up and fight
(This is it)
Make no mistake where you are
Your back’s to the corner
Don’t be a fool anymore
The waiting is over”
Loggin’s offered this background story on song. To me the couplet “You think that maybe it’s over, only if you want it to be” points to the primacy of team morale as the key resource for a startup. I think 2023 is going to test a lot business models, requiring that teams recognize reality and design new approaches. Here are two related blog posts:
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“Having an “edge’ and surviving are two different things: the first requires the second. As Warren Buffet said: ‘in order to succeed you must first survive.’ You need to avoid ruin. At all costs.”
Nicholas Nassim Taleb in his Foreword to Ed Thorp’s Memoirs (A Man for All Markets)
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“Revision: when I stripe a whole passage and hit ‘delete,’ it feels like cutting a sandbag loose from a hot air balloon.”
Sven Birkerts (@SvenBirkerts)
For me, it feels like losing a pet–or sometimes like losing a friend. I rarely delete but move to an “outtakes” or “scrapbook” file. When editing others work I tend to make a copy of the full original and then present the reduced version in case they are as loss averse as I am. But in revising a passage, tightening it up, I do get a sense of speedup, of compact elegance in the same way that mathematicians speak of an “elegant proof.” I think there is a difference between cutting a passage and tightening it. Cutting is sometimes necessary–whereas tightening is always an improvement–but I find it hard to do.
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“The hardest part about the startup thing is when you build something completely on your own and you have to recognize that it failing does not mean that you are a failure.
The experience has also reiterated one of my long-held beliefs.
No tech blog or self-help book or tech thought leader tweeting out their quips and isms is going to be as effective a teacher as screwing up, failing, and knowing what not to do next time.
It’s weird. Despite priding itself in being individualistic and experimental, the tech industry has a strong follow-the-leader syndrome.
And usually the leader is some guy who made a lucky investment once or built a cool framework or exited a company successfully.
I’m not discounting that they don’t have anything meaningful to share about their successes.
But just because someone is successful, doesn’t mean they know how to be successful.”
“Wisdom is having things right in your life and knowing why.
If you do not have things right in your life you will be overwhelmed:
you may be heroic, but you will not be wise.
If you have things right in your life but do not know why,
You are just lucky, and you will not move
in the little ways that encourage good fortune.”
William Stafford in “The Little Ways That Encourage Good Fortune”
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“I use Emacs, which might be thought of as a thermonuclear word processor. […] Emacs outshines all other editing software in approximately the same way that the noonday sun does the stars. It is not just bigger and brighter; it simply makes everything else vanish.”
Green text on a black screen, what’s not to like. I learned Emacs 45 years ago and it’s served me well so far. It would be nice if there was version that enabled real time collaboration on a document or set of documents.
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“We are not looking for the optimum method; we are looking for the hardiest method.
Anyone can sit down and devise a perfect system for the past.”
Larry Hite in an interview with Jack D. Schwager in Market Wizards: Interview with Top Traders (1989)
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There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
William Stafford in “The Way It Is”
h/t Conal Elliot Quotes Collection; this reminds me of the Mandalorian‘s catchphrase “this is the way” or the concept of the Tao (the Way or the Path) as the natural order of the universe that you must grasp intuitively. Wisdom is acting in alignment with the Tao.
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“I am ready to do this every day for the rest of my life, if it means those bastards never reach Mykolaiv.”
Valentyna Donchenko, a 76 year old Ukrainian woman living in Mykolaiv who has been without water and power for seven months. Quoted in https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/11/09/mykolaiv-water-infrastructure-ukarine-war/ (Nov-9-2022) [Paywall]
Also quoted in Perun’s “Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure – does strategic bombing ever work?” in the “Suffering Not Victory” section. This reminds me a scene in Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel “The Diamond Age.”
One of the Boers, a wiry grandmother with a white bun on her head and a black bonnet pinned primly over that, conferred briefly with the Boer leader. He nodded once, then caught her face in his hands and kissed her.
She turned her back on the waterfront and began to march toward the head of the advancing columns of Celestials
The Boer grandmother doggedly made her way forward until she was standing in the middle of the Bund. The leader of the Celestial column stepped toward her, covering her with some kind of projectile weapon built into one arm of his suit and waving her aside with the other. The Boer woman carefully got down on both knees in the middle of road, clasped her hands together in prayer and bowed her head.
Then she became a pearl of white light in the mouth of the dragon. In an instant the pearl grew to the size of an airship. He had the presence of mind to close his eyes and turn his head away, but he didn’t have time to throw himself down; the shock wave did that, slamming him full-length into the granite paving-stones of the waterfront promenade and tearing about half of his clothes from his body.
He huddled on a piled-up fishing net, limp and weak as though his bones had all been shattered, staring at the hundred-foot crater in the center of the Bund and looking into the rooms of the Cathay Hotel, which had been neatly cross-sectioned by the bomb in the Boer woman’s body.”
We see many examples of the self-sacrifice of an older generation to protect the young and society they grew up in. The Fukishima 50 were initially a small group of older volunteers but their numbers swelled to over a 1,000 of all ages as the crisis worsened. The core the Spartan force s at Thermopylae were Leonidas’ personal bodyguard, and volunteers who all had sons, expecting to sacrifice themselves buy time for the Greek city states to mount a full defense against the Persians. One theory of popular revolts is they are driven by the recognition that the current regime will deliver a worse future for their children.
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“Plants, animals, and humans all seem to need a setback now and then for a vigorous life. Unless a man has been kicked around a little you really can’t depend upon him to amount to anything.”
William Feather in “As We Were Saying‘
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“There’s a kind of gyroscope inside humanity. Institutions as old as the great religions, like civilizations, are a mass of scars. They are an archive of heresy and resolution. They are the record of humanity’s dialog with God.”
Richard Fernandez (@wretchardthecat)
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“The creative individual is childlike and primitive in the sense that he has not been trapped by the learned rigidities that immobilize the rest of us. In his chosen field, he does not have the brittle knowingness and sophistication of a man who thinks he knows all the answers. The advantage of this fluidity is obvious in that it permits all kinds of combinations and recombinations of experience with a minimum of rigidity.”
John W. Gardner “Self-Renewal“
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“Her ex stops by when he’s in town and we pretend he’s welcome. The two of them, Holly and this ex of hers, sit around and depress each other. They know all of each other’s weak points and failings, so they can bring each down in two-tenths of a second.
When she see him, Holly says, it’s like the sunsets at the beach–once the sun drops the sand chills quickly. Then it’s like a lot of times that were good ten minutes ago and don’t count now.”
Some team reunions are like this as well.
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“Patience: is understanding and accepting the fact that things must unfold in their own time. The practice of patience can reduce agitation and anxiety. To be patient is to be aware of each moment, and to act with understanding. Patience is not a passive but an active skill.”
Ralph Steele in “An Introduction to Vipassana Meditation“
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“When your dreams turn to dust, vacuum.”
End of year is a good time to make adjustments.
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“As we look out into the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it almost seems as if the universe must in some sense have known we were coming.”
Freeman John Dyson in “Energy in the Universe” Scientific American (1971)
He refined this 8 years later in “Disturbing the Universe”
“The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.”
Freeman Dyson in “Disturbing the Universe” (1979)
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“There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.”
James Baldwin in “Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son” (1961)
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I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; I still think this is an eminently important difference.
Charles Darwin in a letter to Francis Galton 23 December 1869 [Image]
I think desire can create ability, social skills also matter.
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Die Hard: Two Movies in One
“‘Die Hard’ is a story about a desperate insurgency against a vastly superior invading force, requiring the near-miraculous marshaling of limited resources. It’s a modern version of the Hannukkah story.”
Jeff Dunetz in Differences Between Christimas and Hannukkah
It’s a very funny piece, here is the opening:
“Hanukkah begins Sunday night, December 18th, and Christmas is the week after. All too often, people ls lump the two together in the politically correct expression “happy holidays.” But the two holidays are very different. America is supposed to be a “melting pot,” but it’s more of a gumbo. We’re together on the same broth but keep our own shape.
One sad thing about each faith’s end-of-the-year holiday is that most Jews do not understand Christmas, and most Christians don’t get Hanukkah. But they should. After all, each faith believes that Jesus was a nice Jewish boy who went into his father’s business. The disagreement is about his father’s occupation.”
Jeff Dunetz in Differences Between Christimas and Hannukkah
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The problem is, despite historic spending, the last ten years of tech weren’t defined by explosions of innovation. The last ten years of tech were defined by a lot of ten- or twenty-year-old monopoly products simply getting bigger.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen started building Microsoft in a garage. Jeff Bezos started Amazon in a garage. Susan Wojcicki, the current CEO of YouTube, met two Stanford PhD students just before they changed the course of history — their names were Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They founded Google in her garage.
Recently, it occurred to me I haven’t met a founder who started their company in a garage for about a decade. Palmer Luckey was maybe the last one. He built his first VR headset at his parents’ house. When did this kind of story become the stuff of history?
When did “scrappy startup culture” start to mean a coworking space with catered lunches and a weekly happy hour for $10 thousand a month? More importantly, with all these added resources, where is the correlating spike in innovation? At any stage of the business cycle?
Man, we have got to get back to the garage.
There are a lot of bright, talented people looking for work right now, and a lot of founders looking for funding. Moving forward into such uncertain times, my hope for the industry is everyone who wants a fat, easy paycheck packs up their bags and finds their way back to finance or consulting. My hope is this industry becomes safe for optimists again, for courageous thinkers crazy enough to risk everything for a company or piece of technology they know, in their bones, the world needs. My hope is, challenged in this new era of austerity, we reconnect with the spirit of progress that built this whole, wild industry in the first place.
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“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”
My closing quote for 2022. Thanks for playing our game. See you in 2023–which starts tomorrow.